Amid a churning sea of leprechaun green inside the FleetCenter on Sunday, a lone Indiana Pacers fan behind the baseline held aloft a small sign that read ARTEST CAN HANDLE THE TRUTH. And for the first half, at least, that was the case as Ron Artest, the Pacers' defensive specialist, held Boston Celtics forward Paul Pierce, a.k.a. the Truth, to five points on 2-of-7 shooting. But in the third quarter Pierce went Pop-a-Shot on the Pacers, dropping in 21 of his 37 points, including 11 straight during a 2�-minute stretch, propelling the Celtics to a 102-92 victory and a surprising 3-1 series lead over the third-seeded Pacers. It was Pierce's second high-scoring performance in the series. In a 103-100 Game I victory he brought the Celtics back from 16 points down by draining 21 in the fourth quarter en route to a 40-point night. He scored 14 two nights later in an 89-77 loss and 21 in Game 3, a 101-83 blowout.
It's hard to say which aspect of Pierce's game was most exasperating to the Pacers. When he wasn't beating frequent double teams with a variety of leaners, drives and deep three-pointers, he was killing Indiana at the free throw line. At week's end only Shaquille O'Neal had attempted more free throws in the playoffs than Pierce (53 to 52), but no one had made more than Pierce's 48 (92.3%), including a playoff record 21-of-21 effort in Game 1. As Pacers guard Reggie Miller points out, the 6' 6" Pierce is nearly impossible to guard because he can beat his man off the dribble and can knock down deep threes. (He was 8 for 20 from behind the arc in the series.) "If we send bigger guys at him, he's much quicker and can get around them," says Miller. "But he's tall enough to shoot over his defender."
Indiana's best hope of containing Pierce may be by playing better on offense. Pierce got good looks in the second half on Sunday because the Celtics' full-court pressure and aggressive perimeter defense led to transition baskets and one-on-one coverage. As Boston coach Jim O'Brien put it, "If we walk the ball up, then Paul's got three guys on him."
The way Pierce is playing, though, even a triple team might not pose a problem.